Peter Sagal's 'Denial,' set to be performed locally, brings the issue of Holocaust deniers into the spotlight.
For those who only know Peter Sagal as the quick-witted host/ringleader of Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me, the weekly National Public Radio quiz show that skewers the news and the people who make it, the dark, contemplative Denial will be grist for a reassessment of his skill set.
Denial, about a Jewish defense attorney who takes on a Holocaust-denying professor as a client, is being performed this weekend as the final production of Theatre Ariel’s 2014-15 season.
Sagal, who grew up in Berkeley Heights, N.J., says the idea for the play came to him at a time when millions of Americans were looking at the Holocaust with a renewed intensity. “It was around 1993, when Schindler’s List came out,” he recalls of his work, which was first produced in 1995. “People were talking about Holocaust denial, how the survivors are dying out and the liars will take over.
“One of the things that occurred to me was, why is it such an effective way to attack Jews — why is it seen as so central to Jewish identity? Most people who are racist against black people don’t dress up as history professors and pretend slavery never happened — they have other techniques they use. What is it about Jewish identity that makes us so sensitive to this? Everybody says, write what you know; I have always found it more interesting to write about what I don’t know so I can learn about it.”
Thanks to Sagal’s Q score, the local production has been a hotter ticket than usual for the company that has taken to the salon format, with productions taking place in private homes for audiences of 40-50 people at each show.
Deborah Baer Mozes, the founder and artistic director of Theatre Ariel, acknowledges that the double bonus of producing a published play — the vast majority of her group’s stagings are from works-in-progress and unpublished manuscripts — that happened to be written by one of the most recognizable names in public radio creates a win/win.
“I love Wait Wait, but I wouldn’t have done the play just because it has his name on it,” she qualifies. “But it certainly makes for a nice plus. People who haven’t seen our work before have bought tickets. And this is also one of only a handful of times we have done a published work. I didn’t even think the play had arrived because the package was so tiny — I was waiting for a big manuscript!”
During the research Sagal conducted for the play, he came across the 1993 story of Anthony P. Griffin, a black attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, who defended Michael Lowe, the grand dragon of the Texas Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, against the state of Texas’ demand that Lowe turn over his membership lists. “I asked myself: What would happen if a Jewish person defended a Holocaust denier? And I was off to the races,” Sagal remembers.
The play also focuses on what it means to be a Jew in America today, and how its definition blurs and becomes a barrier between generations, as evidenced by the confrontations between Abigail, the defense attorney, and Nathan, an Auschwitz survivor who is brought in to prove the impossibility of denying the Shoah.
Sagal, whose brother is Rabbi Douglas Sagal of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, N.J., has long been a non-practicing but self-identifying Jew. He still wrestles with the issue, although today he sees it through the prism of his own children.
“Everybody I know who has a strong religious feeling these days more or less chose that for themselves as adults, either to re-engage with the faith of their parents or with another one,” he explains. “My decision was to allow my children to know where they came from on both sides” — his ex-wife is a non-practicing Catholic — “and let them make their own decisions.
“I won’t say I regret it, but I can now see the wisdom of bringing them up in a faith so that they have a place to start from. I was given this gift of knowing who I was growing up that I now deal with. My kids don’t have that, and I’m thinking I might have deprived them of that by not giving them an identity to start their journey.”
Despite the success of his radio show and his numerous other writing gigs, Sagal clearly wants to return to playwriting. “I have been able to sit in a room and watch people watch one of my plays. There is something about that that is very profound and rewarding, even for someone who has the privilege of doing something that 5 million people enjoy every week,” he says, referring to Wait Wait. “But to be able to sit in a room and do something smaller and quieter, maybe more complicated and ambiguous and have people experience that over a period of time is also extraordinary, and I miss it.”
INFO TO GO
May 2 at 9 p.m.
and May 3 at 7 p.m.